I think of the sangha as a very soft, open thing. I’ve got people I’ve practiced with in a deep way for many years, like my wife, and my dear friends. Right now you’re in my sangha. We’ve touched in that way. Everyone I meet is in my sangha. I don’t know if that’s the proper definition, but that’s the way I’m going to hold it in my mind.
—Jeff Bridges, actor.
Today I went back to the Vedanta Ashram Society for the second time, for bhakti practice (bhakti is “devotion”). I sat on the floor with a little cushion I brought with me, and sang whenever I could make out the words. After so much singing, I felt my body relax after every song, and I naturally went into a state of meditation. This is what kirtan and bhajan singing does for me.
It was wonderful to spend another Sunday with my Hindu friends, who are completely unknown to me. I can’t even read the songbook, because it’s written in Devanagari, which I don’t understand. But it doesn’t matter. I felt safe, okay, welcomed, loved. My goddess Durga is a very strong presence for me there.
The Vedanta Society has been a blessing for me after the hell I’ve been through with the last two Buddhist sanghas I tried to join. I had no idea I was in for so much pain and suffering trying to become a member of a Buddhist sangha. The Vedanta community is a place where I can go for refuge from the Buddhists when they drive me crazy, when they’re so uptight and perfectionistic. Vedanta community gives me a way to feel part of something, instead of feeling like I’m dropping off the edge of the planet. It’s a healing place, a way to continue my spiritual path, despite the obstacles. After the service and the meal, I started to feel some spiritual healing. I started to feel like, “ok, maybe I can go on with this; I’m not stuck with any one community.”
Dzogchen Ponlop said something quite funny about sanghas in a teaching on interdepedence. A friend asked him: ‘How come you attract so many crazy people?’ DPR said: “It’s because I’m crazy—and dharma attracts crazy people, because we need dharma to overcome our craziness. If you’re not crazy then why are you here meditating? So we both attract each other, all the crazy people together. Isn’t that nice? It’s more fun that way. We will never bore each other.” (DPR, 2013). When you join a Buddhist community, you become involved as a crazy person with bunch of other crazy people, trying to heal their craziness. The problem with many Buddhist sanghas is they will never admit that.
Then I read in the Nalandabodhi curriculum on “Foundational Buddhism” (part II), that one does not take refuge in a particular Buddhist community (unless that happens to work for you). One takes refuge in the “noble sangha” of teachers who have taught me the dharma, who guide and inspire my walk on the path. I have already published a list of the teachers from whom I have learned “the dharma”, many of whom are not Buddhist. In a recent talk to practitioners in NYC (2014), Krishna Das told people to go and learn from lots of teachers and communities, but never join anything. If you join a community, you become exploitable, financially and spiritually. Krishna Das practices both Hindu bhakti and Buddhist Dzogchen meditation. So I can sing bhakti with the Hindus. meditate with the Kagyu Yogis, study with the Dzogchen scholars, hang out with my fellow addicts and practice radical acceptance. I go from sacred place to sacred place to learn and share with other practitioners, Hindu, Buddhist, yogis and pagans. My symbol is “the Walking Buddha” (photo above).
I will never again attempt to join any Buddhist community. I have been liberated from ever having to join one, because I know now that is not what I take refuge in. i take refuge in teachers and fellow practitioners who support my path as a bhakti Buddhist. I don’t have a single spiritual “home”. The Buddha himself called his path, “the homeless life.” And don’t chastise me for ‘spiritual shopping’. I’m committed to one path, the path of awakening, the Buddhist path. But that path winds through many sanghas and teachers, the path of the wandering Siddha.